President Obama and I both dropped in at Shakespeare's Globe this weekend. He watched a short extract from Hamlet while I stood as a groundling to see the whole performance on Saturday night. My ticket was bought last November and cost me five pounds. At that price, in a theatre that doesn't get any of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Arts Council subsidy, what I got was not just superb value but the chance to see a really excellent Hamlet -- Ladi Emeruwa.
This touring production with a small cast has been travelling the world for the past two years, visiting nearly 200 countries. Some day we'll no doubt hear the full story, but it's worth recording that the show betrayed no sign of having gone around the block too often. Quite the opposite: it was amazingly sharp and fresh. Emeruwa, who was cast just after leaving drama school, was for my money a better Hamlet than David Tennant, delivering much more of the character's anguish as well as his sardonic humour. I also liked the way Phoebe Fildes played Ophelia, bringing a wholesome innocence to the part and a genuine affection for Hamlet. One or two scenes misfired, including the play-within-a-play scene, which concentrated too much on comedy. One of the handicaps of doubling the parts of Claudius and the Player King is that the impact on Claudius of seeing a play in which he is fingered as his brother's murderer remains largely invisible to the audience.
But there's no arguing about the impact of this worldwide tour, one of two hugely ambitious initiatives dreamed up by Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole. The first was the Globe to Globe season in 2012, which brought theatre companies from 37 countries to the Globe to perform Shakespeare's works in their own language. Like the Hamlet tour, this was a spectacularly bonkers idea that paid off, raising the international profile not just of the Globe but of British theatre in general, and stealing the thunder of the less nimble Royal Shakespeare Company.
Dromgoole, though not universally liked (he was notorious among the Globe's volunteer stewards for never acknowledging their presence with a friendly word), can be credited with a series of brilliant achievements. Not only was he a Shakespeare fanatic who created a series of unforgettable productions, including Henry IV, which brought Roger Allam a well-deserved Olivier Best Actor award, and Antony and Cleopatra, which brought together Eve Best and Clive Wood, but he also opened the Globe's candle-lit Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre with a run of sellout performances, including The Duchess of Malfi with Gemma Arterton. Mark Rylance, the Globe's first artistic director, arguably faced a greater challenge in launching the Globe from a standing start two decades ago, but Dromgoole leaves with a record of innovation and success to be proud of.
I managed to see about a third of the 37 short films of Shakespeare's plays that made up Dromgoole's final brainwave initiative, The Complete Walk. This regrettably brief two-day event displayed a bite-sized chunk of every play in the canon to a new audience on the South Bank, who could stroll along the Thames and see the work on big screens. Not every film quite overcame the shortcomings in picture and sound quality of this format. The ones that worked best, in my view, were those where the director chose key scenes with just two characters and let Shakespeare's writing take the strain.
Dromgoole hands over this weekend to Emma Rice, a surprise appointment which has generated a certain amount of foreboding inside and outside the theatre. If her first show, A Midsummer Night's Dream, proves a success, then the pressure on her to prove a worthy inheritor of what Rylance and Dromgoole created may ease off.